Shared Stories: I Saw the Inside of Hell

Anthony Caldwell is one of the thousands who worked at the fabled Bethlehem Steel plant in Vernon.  Anthony’s graphic description of the process of making steel highlights the powerful forces required for this product so necessary to our way of life.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Anthony Caldwell
There has to be a heaven because I saw the inside of hell.  


In the 1970’s you could get a job doing anything. All you had to do was have the qualifications, or ‘lie’ about it. I got a job at ‘Big Beth’ – Bethlehem Steel in Vernon, California.


Bethlehem Steel recycled steel from scrap yards, junk yards, home products and the plant ran twenty-four hours a day.


On Vernon Avenue, cars waiting for trains or traffic lights to change had to roll up their windows to keep the heat out.  The plant sat right next to the street and the heat came from red-hot ingot cars coming out of the melt-ladle department.


My job with the maintenance department was to lube the equipment while it was working.  You had to be fast, unless all was locked-out (stopped).

We were on top of the red-hot heat ovens powered by natural gas and whose covers were made of bricks. If you had the bricks fail, well, goodbye! That didn’t scare me too bad.


But on top of the gantry crane, overlooking the electric, carbon-arc melting crucibles, the foreman called, “Hang on!  We have to make a dump into the melt. So stay put!”


The 50-ft. gantry crane started moving down the hundred-yard long dark, dirty building.  It picked up a dump container full of refrigerators, electric irons, pots, pans, and whatever junk steel was in it and went back to the electric melt-crucibles department.  


I looked over the side and my hand brushed the black, gritty slag – dust – over the side.  The top of the forty-foot wide lid raised up and moved with its hundreds of cables of copper wires and carbon arc electrodes swinging out of the way.


I looked down at the white-hot and red molten steel and slag.  The dump container opened its bottom and the contents poured into the molten brew.


Then all hell broke loose.  Explosions - red, green, purple, black, yellow - clouds like a storm enveloped us and the gantry crane!


Breathing the whirlwind of complete pollution was impossible!  You had to cover your face and your dust mask with anything handy. I did my best with paper towels and felt my skin react to many poisonous types of chemicals.


Finally the gantry crane moved away from the big pot and the lid swung back and closed. Then the cables started dancing, and the electric power returned.

The next day I asked for a transfer, and being denied, I quit on the spot.

Shared Stories: Making Steel

Many people in the area may know someone who worked in one of the heavy industry plants in nearby Vernon. Frank Novak describes the amazing machinery and conditions that produced steel at the Bethlehem plant before it closed in 1982. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Frank Novak
If you were driving on Slauson Avenue in the dark in the in the 1970s or 80s, in the city of Vernon, you might be treated to an amazing sight. Just past the chain link fence on the south side of the street, heavy tongs from up high would drop down to pull a glowing rectangular mass, 10 tons of orange steel, out of a high pit. 

As the overhead crane lifted the ingot clear and carried it toward the fence, you would feel the heat on your face through the car window.  

The crane would trolley along, parallel to the road, with the hot steel hanging upright until it was lined up with a set of rollers as thick as a man. The crane would bang the hot steel into the rolls and lay it down sideways, and as it did so crusts of molten metal would get knocked off onto the ground. 

Then the rollers would carry the heavy ingot out of sight into the dark bowels of the mill, leaving the pieces of slag to glow on the ground, casting eerie shadows as the metal cooled toward gray. 

This was the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Vernon, California, where I had the good fortune to work from 1973 to 1982. I had dropped out of graduate school in 1972. Heart-sick over the on-going Vietnam war, and no longer enchanted with the remnants of the 1960s counterculture, I began to work in a machine shop, looking for something more “real.” The pay wasn’t the greatest, and when I heard Bethlehem Steel was hiring, I jumped at the chance.

The Bethlehem Vernon plant was a sprawling affair. Its property stretched almost a half a mile along Slauson between Maywood Avenue and Boyle Street. The plant was a scrap re-melt plant, meaning that new steel was made by melting down scrap metal rather than extracting it from iron ore. Much of the property was open, filled with mountains of scrap metal tended by a few cranes that loaded and unloaded the rail cars.

The heart of the plant was at the north-east corner, on the south side of Slauson and nestled up against the railroad tracks along the Vernon-Huntington Park boundary. Large corrugated-metal sheds, each over one hundred feet wide and a quarter mile long, housed several rolling mills and the three electric furnaces. 

The roofs were so high that overhead cranes traveled up and down the bays just under the roof, riding on railroad-sized rails that ran along the eaves. When the mills were running there was an incessant clatter: hot steel in the shape of beam-like billets running down roller beds, cranes travelling overhead, the crude drive mechanisms of the mills themselves clanking as they turned the heavy mill rollers, and above it all the deep rumble of the electric furnaces.

It was into one of these mills that the ingots, rolling out of sight of the gawkers on Slauson Avenue, disappeared. This was the so-called 32-inch Mill, the mill where I worked during most of my years at Bethlehem. The 32-inch Mill was actually a series of two mills, two cutting machines called “shears,” and at the end a pair of cooling beds. These were positioned in a line along one of the long sheds with a lot of space in between. They were connected by conveyor beds made of steel rollers.

A rolling mill in its simplest form is two rollers, one above the other. Hot steel is rolled through these rollers, and is squeezed down as it goes through. Imagine rolling out dough to make spaghetti. Just like dough, the hot steel stretches out and becomes longer. 

But the dough we are talking about is steel so hot it glows orange, and at the first mill it is shaped like a large refrigerator. This can’t be rolled out to a smaller shape all at once, so the ingot is rolled back and forth through the two steel rollers that are 32 inches in diameter and as wide as a dining room table. 

The ingot rolls through one way and is squished slightly. The operator, operating the control levers in a little room over the mill, lowers the top roller down maybe in inch, then reverses the rollers and rolls the ingot back through. After a couple of passes, the ingot is flipped on its side, and rolled back and forth some more. This goes on, until the ingot is reduced to a billet about six inches one a side and almost two hundred feet. long, shooting down the conveyor at 30 miles an hour to the next step in the process.

I was a 25-year-old refugee from academia, and this was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

Shared Stories: Confessions of a Recovering Hoarder

Mary Lou Garcia’s reflection on her habit of accumulating things leads her to new insight on a pledge to a best friend who is terminally ill, and thoughts about the best form of eulogy. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.


By Maria Lou Garcia

While walking by the Sea of Galilee during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, my best friend Victoria and I made a pact. Whoever survives the other will be the one to deliver the eulogy.  It’s been 10 years since we made that pact, and, though I have had my own health issues, Victoria has contracted and battled with colon cancer.  

Early on, I expressed my strong desire to visit her in Maryland but she told me she was restricted from having visitors. Two years and three weeks past the prohibition to accept visitors, my husband, Ed, called me from work.

“I have a week off,” he told me. “Call Victoria and ask if we could come and visit her.”  
With a smile on her voice, Victoria did not only say yes, she asked, “Would you be my maid of honor and Ed be Tony’s best man?” 

Victoria declared that our visit was timely as they were spending the week at their condo by Beach City, Maryland, and renewing vows at St Luke’s Church for their 47th wedding anniversary. There would be no other guests except us. 

I noticed immediately that their condo was devoid of clutter. There was only a sofa, a dining set, a few necessary appliances, two wall paintings, and a bed for each room. I knew I was there for more than one reason. This would be a reminder of my recent goal to redefine and simplify my life.  

Last October, my sister-in-law Zenaida, who had lived in New Jersey for over 40 years, came with the intent of moving to California permanently. When she saw that our garage was packed with stuff from an accumulation of items unimaginable, she started the monumental task of tossing, donating, and keeping stuff to the bare essentials. 

From the darkness, created by piles of boxes from a garage fire and burst water pipe, came a glimmer of hope and light the moment she picked up the first object. Now, literally, there was light at the end of the garage’s tunnel! 

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that all the clothes, shoes, books and what-have- you - left by guest roomers, new teacher recruits, a friend distraught from a foreclosure, our own grown children, and ourselves - would stockpile into a nightmare. 

While the sorting of the garage is still in progress, it is possible and not too late to become a minimalist. 

First, I have to admit that I am a hoarder married to another hoarder. Once I admit this to be true of myself, I have to pledge myself to de-hoard 40 items a day (okay, so maybe four), and copy what Zenaida did, by creating piles for donation, trash and for keeps.  

So as not to be overwhelmed, I would repeat daily, like a mantra or affirmation, the proverb by the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  

Secondly, I will seriously comply with my vow of no needless shopping. Though I can honestly say that I am basically not a shopaholic, I admittedly do binge shop. The culprit is when I am on a trip abroad and go overboard with buying souvenirs and pasalubongs (coming-home presents for others). Things I might “need” someday to gift others land in my garage, stashed and forgotten.

In conversation with Father Lester about hoarding, he mentioned that the whole idea of hoarding can be cultural. Having more is a status symbol in the Philippines, something to be proud of. 

Also, after being deprived in the Philippines of things “stateside” or imported, and then moving to America, in the land of plenty, things are now for keeps and affordable. Then again, the custom of recycling, reusing, repairing is indigenous to the Filipino culture, long before recycling became popular in a throw-away society as that of the United States.  

Not to be derogatory, I am referring to how fresh, clean, unwanted foods, expired food, leftovers, broken appliances, and old sofas are conveniently disposed of.  I’ve seen it in schools and along curbs during trash pick-up days.   

Indeed, somebody else’s trash can be, in fact, another’s treasure. Growing up in the Philippines, it is not unusual to hear voices ring “Bote, Dyaro luma.” Street recyclers of bottles and old newspapers solicit door to door to buy those items for the purpose of selling them as a living.  In fairness, eBay, Craigslist, OfferUp, and thrift stores in the U.S. also create jobs of buying and selling for a living. 

During our visit to Maryland, Victoria and Tony took Ed and myself nowhere near the malls. Instead, after daily Mass in church and lunch at restaurants, we scoured thrift stores.

In fact, Ed and I were able to buy our maid-of-honor and best man clothes from a Methodist thrift shop. There were also Catholic, hospice, and the hospital thrift shops to choose from.  Being part of the equation for recycling and reusing was quite an adventure! 

Though unspoken, perhaps even unintentional, Victoria’s message was clear: detachment along with the old familiar adage, “You can’t take it with you.”  

Victoria had told me three times, “You don’t have to come to my funeral.” I pretended not to hear. I guess she knew our time spent together was the eulogy that was better experienced and lived than heard.    

COMMENTARY: Another summer of opportunity

Memorial Day is this weekend. Can you believe it? Another start of summer and all that. 

Nearly a year ago I was thinking about making a run to the state capitol for my sister had spoken about it from watching a Huell Howser rerun. We sort of made it to Sacramento but in July I lost sight in my left eye from a hemorrhage in the blood vessels, which supply blood inside the eyeball.

After an urgent injection in my eye (yes, it is a bit painful), my sight cleared enough for the two of us to make a small detour (about a 500-mile detour) to witness the full eclipse of the sun in eastern Oregon. It was surely a once-in-a-lifetime trip for both of us.

Here we are again. Two weeks ago, I experienced another hemorrhage in my left eye. My doctor seemed a little, well, let’s say upset that I was back in his exam chair with another loss of sight situation.

I had no excuses. I’ve had a lot on my mind. The optomologist/retinal specialist) agreed that stress affected my blood pressure and, combined with my diabetes, it was a recipe for disaster. He numbed me up, “stuck a needle in my eye,” and my sister accompanied me home.

I tried it alone once but ended up sitting on a bus bench in downtown LA, finally dialing 911 for I was blinded from the treatment and the bright sun. I learned my lesson the hard way. I ask her to go with me to LA whenever the need arises.

Now we are on the doorstep of another Southern California summer including a seemingly return (or continuation) of the great drought.

Yeah, I know, there were 25-foot snow drifts on Lassen Peak as we traveled to the eclipse zone, but hey, last year’s 200 plus percent of precipitation in the northern part of California almost broke the tallest dam (Oroville). It did dampen our initial trip plans for some of the nation’s prime fish hatcheries were cleared out from the muddy emergency dam release.

The good news is that I made sure we stopped at the Independence Hatchery on the way back because I had promised my sister we’d see one. I try not to break any commitments to her.
Another reminder of a war past is right off the 395. The restored Manzanar National Historic Site, a detention or rather concentration camp from WWII.

Memorial Day reminds me of the time I interviewed a Vietnam vet at my adopted VFW Post in Barrio Logan.

That was my first real experience with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without going into details, I can say that I ended the interview because I could see that we had both traveled back to Kaesong during the siege of ’68.

Later, maybe I experienced too much death in my duties as a cemetery employee where the casualties of the current “War on Terror” came through our doors to be prepared for burial at the National Cemetery in San Diego. I just know that I felt so much hurt when I encountered a family who lost someone in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

That was a lifetime ago, yet our involvement in conflicts today still have the names Iraq and Afghanistan being spoken of in addition to Syria and now Niger.

I think I’ll visit Dad this weekend. He was a good soldier and father. He rests in Little Lake Cemetery with his bronze memorial thanking him for his service as a member of the US Army during the 1950’s.

Mom, Amelia his wife, lays with him in the same plot. I’ll thank her too.

Also, I’ll attend the city of Norwalk’s Memorial Day remembrance service at the beautiful year-old memorial and monument to all veterans who served our great country.

I suggest we all come out. It’s Monday, May 28, starting at 11 a.m.

By Raul Samaniego, contributor
 

Shared Stories: My first crush

There are many who can identify with Kacie Cooper’s sweet memories of her first crush.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Kathy “Kacie” Cooper

His name was Keith and his family lived on the next street from us.  His mother and my mother were best friends.  He was the third-born child of seven kids.  I was the third-born child of four kids.  At my young age I guess I thought this had to be a sign from heaven - we were destined for each other.  

Keith was a stocky sort of a young man with eyes like Paul Newman and hair that matched Robert Redford’s.  But it wasn’t until many years later, probably 3rd grade, that I realized my attraction to him.  

All through elementary school he was a very illusive chap to find.  I could never find him at recess, so I would wait at the end of the hall, holding on to the metal pole, hugging it, trying to look inconspicuous while searching high and low, just to get a glimpse of Keith.

Finally, by 5th grade, two years later, I had gotten tired of searching, so I decided to start playing tetherball. By the end of that year, Keith had finally mustered up enough courage to get in line for a game of tetherball.

By then I was the tetherball queen. Kids waited in line to play the queen.

“Can I play?” he asked me. Was he talking to me? I guess he was. Oh my! Of course, I was too shy to answer. I clumsily threw the ball to the next person in line, hitting them right in the kisser, and then ran off as fast as I could. I was just so petrified. I thought I’d be sick to my stomach. Keith had finally spoken to me!

All through junior high he and I continued this hide-and-seek approach to love.  Then, in high school, Keith started hanging out with my brother Michael and would come over to our house almost every day.

Still I would hide from him.  One day, hiding in my bedroom, quietly opening the door, I saw Keith slowly closing the front door to leave.  But before he did, he saw me, stopped, and shot me the cutest smile I had ever seen on him.

I always knew Keith was shy.  I think he knew I was shy too. One time I thought maybe Keith and I would have made the best of friends, had I been a boy like my big brother Michael.

A year after graduating, my brother Michael told me that Keith’s girlfriend had just had a baby girl.  I was so hurt.

Years later, Michael got married, had two daughters, and Keith started hanging out with some other guys.

Then one devastating night Michael came to me with tears in his eyes and informed me that Keith had died unexpectedly. My heart was crushed. 

Michael cradled me in his arms and comforted me and I did the same for him.  I don’t know which one of us was hurt more.

Our first crush is the most innocent, the purest, of loves.  I never could find Keith here on Earth but let me tell you – if I get to heaven, this time, believe me, I will find him.

Shared Stories: Mama said

Dora Silvers recently celebrated her 90th birthday. In this piece, she recalls her mother and events in life by what by what her mother said. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Dora Silvers
I was living in New Jersey. When I was 14 years old, I went roller skating on the hill behind my house. I fell and hurt my knee. I took the skates off and went in my house.

Mama was in the kitchen. She said, “Sit down and I will give you a cookie. You will feel better.”

I modeled in a dress shop on Saturdays. The girls I went to high school with went to Vassar College. Their mothers came to buy them clothes. I modeled sweaters and skirts. I would tell them the sweaters came in pink, blue, and yellow. They would buy them all. I got a commission.

The owner of the shop was my girlfriend’s aunt. Mrs. Stein gave me money to go to New York to the Barbizon School for modeling. You had to be 5’8’’ or taller. I was 5’4’’.  

I was disappointed. Mara said, “Be a model in the dress shops. You get commissions.” My daughter Nancy is 5’2”. She was a Wendy Wold model.

Then I went to work as a secretary for engineers at American Can Company. The engineers taught me to read blueprints and plan jobs. They just returned from the army and went to school under the GI Bill. The engineers collected $200 so I could go to college.

The next day I went to the college. They said they would not accept women in 1946. Mama said, “Be a secretary.”

I was sweeping the kitchen floor when my girlfriend Sylvia came in. I swept the dust behind the pantry door.

Mama said, “Your boyfriend will leave you behind the door.”

When I met Jack, he told Mama that he did not cook. He lived with his married sister.

Mama said, “How will he take care of you if he can’t cook?” Well, he bought TV dinners and chow mein – enough for two days.

Mama listened to the soap operas on the radio. The only thig I remember was Rinso White, Rinso Blue. One day she dialed a different station and heard the song “Que sera, sera, what will be, will be.”  

Then Mama said, “What will be, will be.”  

Sadly, Mama is gone. The song lingers on. “Que sera, sera, what will be, will be.”

Shared Stories: One breath, one step

One fall morning in 2004 was marked by a life-changing event for Mary Nieraeth – she lost consciousness while driving.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Mary Nieraeth
“Don, what happened!?” I screamed.  I am in my van alone.  Don is at work.  It is mid-morning on Friday September 10, 2004.  My van is sitting off the main street, partly on the sidewalk and lawn right outside my medical group.  

My left arm and shoulder are pinned into the smashed-in driver’s side door. I have no clue about what just happened.  My body is aching all over and I cannot move without feeling pain.
I look down at my left shin and see a big gash.  Blood is running down my lower leg and staining my white sock.  What’s going on? Why are my coupons scattered all over the carpet? Why is milk all over the front seat?  When is someone going to help me? All I want to do is drive my van home but I am stuck on the lawn.

I look out the front van window, positioned on an angle towards my medical group office.  I see many people staring out the window down at my car.  Then, I hear a tapping on my driver’s side window and see a police officer, which startles me.  He tries to open the door but it is stuck.  

He asks me, “Are you all right? Do you know what happened?” 

I mumble, “No.” I am still not sure why he is there or asking me questions. 

“M'aam, you have been in an accident.  I need to ask you some questions.”

I do not believe him! I remember driving to my children’s school to drop off items for the festival that starts tonight.  

How did I miss the turn into the school?  I have been there hundreds of times and could do this in my sleep.  I am feeling stressed about taking care of many tasks before the festival.  I just want to get this situation over so I can continue with my day as I had planned it.

The officer takes out his clipboard with an Accident Report form attached. He asks me one question after another which feels like a long interrogation. I feel so drained and tired.  

I ask him, “Why can’t I drive my van home?” Little did I know the dire condition of my van and the dangerous proximity to the busy intersection and traffic signal just 20 feet ahead in the direction I was heading.   

The officer asks me to sign the Accident Report form.  He tells me he will submit the form to the DMV because I had loss of consciousness while driving.  

Suddenly, a wave of alarming energy moves through my body as I realize that my driver’s license will be confiscated! Thoughts of gloom and doom are rushing through my mind.  I just want to escape and drive my van home, hoping I have woken up to a nightmare that will vanish.

The paramedics arrive, pry open my van door, transfer me to a stretcher and into the ambulance. They drive less than one block to the Emergency Room. This day is the beginning of a long and winding medical journey in search of treatment options for seizures.  

I learn how to take one breath and one step at a time.

Shared Stories: The End of My Time at the Sawmill

Belle Fluhart supported her husband’s entrepreneurial endeavors as long as she could, but she was a little skeptical about one of his business partners. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Belle Fluhart

After World War II, George had been working with his father and Uncle Burt in Los Angeles County building a sawmill to be trucked up to northern California later. I was still living in Kern County near his parents.  

George called and said he was buying a car from Uncle Burt and to send him $300.00. That isn’t much money now, but at that time it was what I could save penny by penny out of my $80.00 allotment each month from the Army.

But we did need a car, so I sent the money. George’s mother came by and told me George was in Bakersfield with the car. We were to come and bring all of the tires and wheels we could find.

She didn’t have any wheels or tires. I didn’t either, so we drove the hour and a half down the narrow winding mountain road through the Kern River Canyon.

We met George in Bakersfield and saw the car. It was a 1933 Ford. It had two 19-inch wheels on the rear, a 17-inch wheel on the left front, and a 16-inch wheel on the right front. This made the car ride at a slant. These wheels and tires were borrowed and had to be returned to Uncle Burt.  

George said, “I’ve gone through everything mechanical. It runs like a new car. Get in and start it.” I did, and it really did sound like a new car.

I turned off the engine and looked around at the interior. George had done a good job cleaning it. Then I looked up.  

It hadn’t had a top on it, so George had built a ceiling of chicken wire and then covered it with an old quilt. This is what I would always see inside the car. On the outside, you only saw the black waterproof cover.

Uncle Burt had sold me a car for $300.00 without wheels or a top.

A few weeks later is when I moved up to the sawmill. I was going to Ukiah and I asked Uncle Burt if he wanted to come along.  He said, ”Yes, I’m going to drive.”

I said, “I’m going to drive.”

He said, “Then I’m not going.”

I said, “Suit yourself,” and turned on the key.  He came and got in the passenger seat.

We managed to get through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. But I had used up all of my savings and all of my canned goods from under the bed. Uncle Burt still wasn’t giving George’s father any of the proceeds from selling lumber in town.

I told George, “I’m going back to southern California and go to work.”

He said, “If we get going good will you come back?”

I said, “Your father and Uncle Burt have been partners all your life.  Has he ever given your father any of the proceeds?”

George said, “No,” and asked again, “if we get going good, will you come back?”

I replied, “If you let me go alone, I’m not coming back.”

He said, “Then you’re not going alone.”

We went south and George went back to U.S. Motors. I got a job in the Sears mail order department.  We bought our first home in Lynwood.

I have no idea what would have happened if George had said anything else that day.  We were married 61 years and 2 months when George passed away in 2004.
 

Shared Stories: Queen for a Day

TV game shows have been a reality of broadcast television for over seven decades. Sharon Smith remembers a neighbor who attended a popular show and won. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Sharon Benson Smith

The Danielson family lived directly across the street from us. We kids always referred to them as them as the “rich people” on the block. They had the loveliest home (both inside and out), the nicest cars, a rental behind their home, and a separate structure in their front yard that housed a bar that was fully stocked with liquor plus non-alcoholic beverages.


Mr. Danielson, Fred, was a conductor for the Santa Fe Railroad, so they were able to travel a lot too (most likely for free). His wife, Ruth, was a homemaker, and came to visit our mom quite often to have a cup of coffee from her 20-cup aluminum percolator. 


One day, Ruth came to ask Mom if she would take care of her boys, Fred Jr. and Gary, while she went to the “Queen for a Day” show to, hopefully, become a contestant.  Mom was pleased for her, and agreed to watch the boys. 


It was a very popular show at the time, hosted by Jack Bailey.  The premise of the show was that whichever contestant needed the most help, (or had the saddest story), she would be chosen as Queen. 


Ruth’s sad story was that the foundation of their home had been in desperate need of repair for several years because when it rained, puddles formed inside the house, the boys would splash in it, and come down with bad colds, often requiring a trip to the doctor’s office.


As the Danielson’s luck would have it, lo and behold, she won Queen For A Day, and that meant prizes galore! Among the prizes was a mangle – a large machine for ironing sheets or other fabrics, usually when they are damp, with heated rollers.  


Ruth taught me to operate the machine and I earned 10¢-25¢ per flat piece that I ironed for her. Boy, was I glad when I got a “real job” and didn’t have to “mangle” anymore.  Additional prizes included all new kitchen appliances, mainly one brand spankin’ new electric stove. 


Ruth didn’t need a new stove, so Dad bought it from them for our mom.  Dad’s heart was in the right place in getting Mom a new stove, but it became such a thorn in her side - it was electric and she preferred gas, saying the heat was just too difficult to control - it got too hot, or not hot enough, etc. 


Mom had that stove until our home sold in 1961, and they moved to La Mirada where she was cooking with gas once again. She was so happy to be rid of that electric stove that Ruth Danielson won on “Queen for A Day.”

Shared Stories: Randy' Last Breath

Almost two years ago, Yolanda Reyna shared a story in this column of her chance encounter with a homeless man who had a big impact on her life. Yolanda’s compassion had an impact on more people than she could have imagined. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.   Curated by Carol Kearns

By Yolanda Reyna

I met Randy over two years ago. We were just two strangers crossing paths. He was a short little man walking with a slight hunch - a drifter in need of a meal. I was fortunate to provide that for him.  


Although needing nourishment in his body, he wasn’t spiritless. He was soft-spoken, kind and gentle, and welcomed me with a genuine and everlasting smile. After that encounter, I never stopped thinking about him. I wrote a story about how we met.  


My story was published in the local newspaper in June 2016, titled “Randy.” In my story I wrote, “I don’t know if I will ever see him again”.  


A year and a half went by and I did see him on the street again, but in another town. I was so moved and excited.  I was able to share with him that I never stopped thinking about him.  I hugged him and told him I wrote a story about him.  


Surprisingly he remembered me! He thanked me for writing his story and unveiled the most lovely smile. There was something about this man that I was so drawn to. By then, he was living in a homeless shelter and I was able to visit him.


I spent time with him on his 65th birthday. In the months I kept in touch with Randy, we created a unique friendship. He was my friend and almost like a brother to me. I called him regularly to make sure he was doing OK. He, in return, would telephone me just to say hello.  


I asked if he had any relatives close by, or family members visiting him. He told me he had a daughter and three grandchildren who lived in Colorado, but he hadn’t spoken to them in a very long time. He never mentioned anything about any friends, and I didn’t want to pry into his life too much.


While he lived in the homeless shelter he was restricted from drinking alcohol, of course. There were rules set and he was unable to make long distance phone calls too. Miraculously, while living in the shelter, he did not drink alcohol for a year.  


One day while visiting Randy, I couldn’t help but ask him about his life. He told me he had been homeless for 10 years. His mother had passed away in 2005 and he lost the home where she had passed away, leaving him to fend for himself. He also confided in me that he had started drinking at an early age, and that was all he knew.  


He often found shelter with friends from time to time, but then he would pack up with what little he had and drift back into the streets. I knew one day he would leave the shelter as he often told me he would. Sadly, when he did leave the shelter, he went on a drinking binge.  


He called me days before Thanksgiving, and told me he wanted to get a job, and get his life in order. We had planned on meeting during the week for a cup of coffee, something we had always talked about doing, but that day would never come.  


Just a day before Thanksgiving, I received a text message. It read, “I’m in the hospital. Call me.” I called immediately. When asked if I was a family member, I told the person I was just a friend. Apparently, one of the staff members looked through Randy’s cell phone and found my number.  


They couldn’t give me any information but told me I could visit him. When I arrived at the hospital, I was shocked and heartbroken to see he had been placed on life support. The hospital knew he had a daughter and was desperately trying to get a hold of her.  


Randy was unrecognizable. His hair was matted, and he looked pale and bloated. It was obvious he had had a fall. He had a chunk of dry blood on the bridge of his nose, and the side of his face was scraped pretty bad. I recognized his hands, because he was a nailbiter.  


I felt helpless, but I kept thinking about his smile. He always had a smile from ear to ear before this happened. It was gut-wrenching to see my friend needing the aid of a machine to help him breathe.  


In the days I visited Randy, I was able to pray over him, talk to him, caress his hand, and whisper in his ear, thanking him for our wonderful friendship. I had placed my story “Randy” by his bedside.  


One day while visiting Randy, I couldn’t help but ask a nurse, “What happened to him?”
She said, “I’m not supposed to tell you, but since you have been the only one visiting him, I will. He was brought in by an ambulance. He was found unconscious behind a liquor store.” 


One day I found a man visiting Randy when I entered the room. I introduced myself and he told me his name was Richard. He was a friend of Randy’s family and had received a phone call from Randy’s daughter. She asked him to be at the hospital with her father. When Richard asked me how I knew Randy, I handed him my story.  


We went to the cafeteria and Richard confirmed everything Randy had shared with me about his mother passing away and his homelessness. Richard also informed me Randy was going to be taken off life support that day. Randy’s daughter, Christina, finally called and gave her consent. I was present in the room along with Richard when the life support was removed.


I gestured to Richard to give me his hand so that I could pray. We bowed our heads and I asked the Lord to have his will with Randy and I thanked the Lord for allowing me to meet this kind man.


I said to Randy, “Go, you’re at peace now.” At 2:43 pm, November 28, 2017, Randy took his last breath. I leaned towards him and kissed him on his forehead. It was a profound experience.


Richard and I embraced each other. I was honored to meet Richard and he thanked me for watching over Randy and for writing my story “Randy.” 


Meeting Randy was by far one of the best experiences in my life. There was a time when I would have never approached any homeless people, but once again, there was just something about this man. I cherished our friendship. He was soft-spoken, kind and gentle. Before his final last days, he always had a smile from ear to ear.  


Randy was laid to rest three weeks later when his daughter came from Colorado. I was able to meet Christina and a host of Randy’s friends. She hugged me and thanked me for being by her father’s side. I was then asked by Richard if I would give a eulogy at Randy’s funeral. I was honored and moved.  


Before Christina and friends of Randy went up to the podium to speak, I went up. I opened in prayer and read Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and I read my story “Randy” to a host of about 30 guests.


In closing, I shared how much Randy meant to me and how grateful I was to meet him.


Thinking back on this wonderful encounter and journey that I had with this total stranger, I marveled. From just two strangers crossing paths, who would have ever thought that I, a complete stranger, would give Randy’s eulogy! 


May you rest in peace, Randy.  I will never forget you.

Shared Stories: Learning to Drive in the U.S.

Anthony Kingsley’s deadpan description of learning to drive in the United States offers perfect episodes for a comedic film – and it even ends on a suspenseful note.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Anthony R. Kingsley
I grew up in Ireland during WWll. When I was about age six I used to listen to the American Forces Network (AFN) Stuttgart and Frankfurt and developed a dream that one day I would go to the United States.
I moved to England where I got a job with a construction company. The pay was OK but not enough to save for moving to the USA. I got two more jobs: bartending during the evenings and selling in a Department Store on weekends. The money from these two jobs went into a separate account. 
As time went by and the savings were building up, I decided to make a bet on a horse named Damredub. Damredub won at a good price. And the savings account got closer to its goal. 
I went to the American Embassy, applied for an immigrant visa and showed my bank accounts to prove I had enough funds to support himself. My passport was stamped with a visa. I advised my three employers of my intention to leave. 
On April 28, 1965 I boarded the 53,000-ton ocean liner, the SS United States. I could have gone on the Queen Mary, but the SS United States offered a 10% immigrant discount. 
As we pulled out of Southampton the captain announced that we would arrive in New York on May 3 at 6:00 am. The next five days were spent on the water with six meals a day – wow – what luxury!!
On May 3 I was up on deck as the ship passed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the entrance to New York Harbor at exactly 6:00 am. I saw all these car lights and wondered where all these people were going. The answer was, of course, people heading to New York City for work. 
After I cleared immigration and customs, a big burly stevedore picked up my meager belongings and carried them out. Not knowing the value of the currency, I gave the stevedore a tip based on English values. The stevedore very nicely handed the tip back and said, “If that is all you can afford son, you need it more that I do.”
A friend of a friend picked me up and took me to an apartment in Brooklyn. After searching for a few days, I obtained a job with Chase Manhattan Bank. But I had to pay the employment agency one month’s pay. 
My neighbor Frank offered to teach me to drive but I said No, I wanted to learn in my own car. After a few months I bought my first car for $300 – a 1960 Plymouth Savoy with huge fins at the back. Off I went with Frank and suddenly I saw a car in my rear-view mirror right up on my tail, so I nervously pulled over. There was no car – what I saw were my own fins.
I got my license and Frank asked me to drive him into New York to buy something. I dropped Frank off and continued driving around the block again and again. Then red flashing lights appeared behind me. I stopped and handed all the paperwork to the officer and was directed to go sit in the police car. The other officer drove my car to the police station.
After about two hours, they said I was free to go. When I asked why I had been picked up, the answer was because I was driving around and around in front of a bank.
While at Chase, my supervisor told me that if I wanted to get ahead I would have to go to college. I applied to Queens College but I was refused because I had no education paperwork. So, I took and passed the GED and was accepted to Queens College. 
In November 1965 the Great Northeast Blackout occurred, cutting power from Canada to Pennsylvania.  And where was I at the time? Stuck down in the metro. It took me five hours to walk home. 
I left Chase to work for an engineering company but Chase asked me to come back and work from 6 pm to midnight on a special project. I accepted so that I could build up my savings. 
In 1969 I was on the freeway when I was hit from behind by a truck. The company would not settle so I sued them. I went to court and the company made an offer. I refused. The judge said I should accept it because there was a five-year backup in the courts. I took the judge’s advice.
After four winters of cold and snow and with no car it was time to say au revoir to New York and head west. So where to go - Los Angeles or San Francisco? A flip of a coin decided – Los Angeles it was! I got a job with a mining company headquartered in Los Angeles and travelled to plants in California, Nevada and Arizona. 
I also transferred to California State University, Los Angeles. In 1982 I graduated with an MBA completing the requirements for both the Accounting and International Business options.
In 1989 I got a job as the Chief Accountant for the State of YAP in Micronesia. But despite the warm water and swaying palm trees, I left after three months.  
I got a job as the assistant controller for a demolition company. I met a wonderful woman from the Philippines, to whom I am still married, bought a house, and decided that my wandering days were over.
But alas, settling down was not meant to be. 

Shared Stories: Take me out of the ball game -- please!

This is a painful story to read about bullying – especially in light of headlines that we see far too often in the news today. Yolanda Adele describes a storybook outcome to a game, but concluding events are still sad. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Yolanda Adele

I was 12 years old and in primary school. Students in my class were being picked for baseball teams. I was the last one standing. The team captains argued about who’d have to take me. They assessed that my doughy body wouldn’t be able to run fast nor throw a ball with any amount of accuracy, let alone be capable of catching it. I pretended not to care, stating loudly, “Girls shouldn’t play baseball anyway!”  

Mrs. Grant, my P.E coach, stepped in and told the captains, it was a requirement, everyone had to participate. Most of the kids began to whine. Then Mrs. Grant said she’d flip a coin in the air for the captains to call to see who would be stuck with me. Oh, she didn’t really say it in that way, but everyone knew that’s what she meant.  

At our first game my teammates groaned when I took my place alongside them. I stood tall with my chin up, shoulders squared back, and tummy held in so tight I felt it quiver.  

Out of the corner of my eye I could see some of the kids sneering at me. I wondered if they could hear my heart beating as loudly as I did. My pulse sounded like percussion in my ears. Beads of sweat raced down my body. My anxiety was evident to everyone. And the ball game had not even started yet! 

My team played the field first. And as predicted I fumbled and dropped the ball when it was thrown to me. Then I tripped over the base while running backwards and getting in the way of the second baseman. This error allowed the runner to get away from being tagged out. As if that were not enough I missed a “sure fly ball”, that someone yelled out his grandmother could have caught.  

When it was our turn at bat my captain said to me, “Your next, just relax.” 

I walked up to the plate slowly.  My knees felt like they were doing the hula. When I picked up the bat, my teammates started “booing.” Soon the spectators and rival team joined in. I gripped the bat hard.  It was difficult to see the pitcher through the tears that welled in my eyes.  

“Strike One!” I heard the umpire say.  Though he was right in back of me, his voice sounded far away as if he were yelling from a tunnel.      

After the cascade of tears streamed down my face, I could see the ball coming.  I held the bat past my right shoulder and when the ball reached me I quickly pivoted on my right foot, twisting hard at the waist, at the same time swinging the bat around with all the pent up anger and frustration percolating within me.  

Then I heard the bat crack as it made contact with the ball. People began to cheer. They shouted, “Run! Run! What are you waiting for?” I stood watching the ball go over the fence, until it was out of sight. I turned and glared at my teammates before I began to walk the bases. I guess it could be said, that I walked my “Home Run”.   

A lot of the kids said they’d never seen anybody else at our school hit the ball out of the park. I didn’t care. I wanted out! After we won the game, I told Mrs. Grant I didn’t want to play baseball ever again!

Mrs. Grant stated the consequences: I would have to take an “F” in Physical Education and sit in the principal’s office during P.E for the rest of the semester.  

“Now, what’s it going to be young lady?” She demanded to know.  

I quickly responded, “Take me out of the ball game - please!”

The lesson I learned on that day is that stubbornness can win a game or keep you out of it.  
I’m good with that.

Shared Stories: Listen and Learn

Steve Zaragoza is an observant man. The boy scouts probably learned a lot under his leadership. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

 

By Steve Zaragoza

It was picture-perfect springtime in Joshua Tree National Park when a group of Boy Scouts visited in 1984. All the colors were sharp and the air was crisp and clean. It is a time I captured and kept in my mind.

I was a scout troop assistant scoutmaster and advisor for hiking and backpacking. We had two patrols of six boys and six leaders. Friday night evening dinner was jumbo burritos.

Next morning started with seasoned potatoes, scrambled eggs, and bacon. After clean-up, we all helped each other to prep for a day hike.

The trail we took would lead us to the boulders area. Throughout the hike, we pointed out the different cactus -  the Joshua tree, teddy bear cholla, Mojave yucca, chuparosa, desert lavender, creosote bush – just to name a few. During our hike in a dry creek bed, we also saw small desert life – rabbits, squirrels, and birds.

At the point of about two miles, we had reached an area at the boulders. All of us agreed to rest. That started a lot of chitter chatter. While that was going on I noticed a signal to have our lunch and snacks.

My favorite snack on hikes is salami and cheese with crackers (Ritz, of course). Some of the boys wanted salami and cheese, so I made a trade – peanut butter and jelly for salami and cheese.

While everyone was eating I noticed a rock climbing group ahead of us. As I was watching, I heard one leader giving instructions to one boy on where to place his hand and foot.

The instructor made himself very clear, telling the boy, “Right arm straight out and about two hand lengths up, and place four fingers in the fissure. Then slide your right leg up slowly till you feel a bump with your foot.”

At the base of a boulder, one of the other instructors was prepping another boy to climb. “Pull yourself up,” he yelled.

That instructor also told the boy to, “Hold and feel my hands to know the movements of tying a knot.”

At that point, I turned back to my group of boys and said, “Hey, guys, look and listen and tell me what you see.” About five minutes in, the boys said they just saw others rock climbing.

I told them, “Listen, guys, they’re in constant communication while climbing and rappelling.” 

The group of kids we were watching were blind. It told our boys that we had a lot to learn about how to listen and work together.

Shared Stories: A Definitive Diagnosis

Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Vickie Williams

In 2015, I was fortunate to have met Ginger Lane in my Norwalk Seniors Memoirs Class. She approached me after I read a story and asked, “Do you have dysphonia, muscles spasms, when you speak?” 

“Yes,” I responded, “sometimes.” I have suffered from a speech impediment for over 40 years. Having to read my stories out loud in class is very stressful, and my disfluency becomes more apparent. Answering the phone, having to say my name, and introductions to strangers are often my biggest challenges.  

My voice can sound breathy, broken, and scattered.  Words with the consonants S, P, V and H can be particularly troublesome.  

My conversation with Ginger was revelatory.  She also had a speech disorder, called adductor spasmodic dysphonia, where the vocal folds slam together, tighten, and stiffen. The spasms make it difficult for the vocal cords to vibrate and produce sounds.  The speech sounds choppy, strained, and strangled. 

Ginger understood not only the mechanics, but also my emotional and mental struggles to speak, especially before an audience. My shoulders relaxed and my mind was at ease when I spoke to her. 

She recommended that I consult an ear, nose, and throat specialist, which I had never done before. Ginger’s suggestion made a difference, and I was sorry I never got an opportunity to thank her for it.

I had graduated from college and was working as a pharmacist when I sought medical help for my difficulties. In the early eighties, my general practitioner diagnosed me as having a stutterer’s behavior. My world turned upside down. My self-esteem plummeted. 

The genesis of my condition was a mystery. At that time, my doctor recommended speech therapy and I followed through, never questioning if his assessment was correct. I spent $5,000 out of my pocket for one year because I did not have a stroke, Parkinson's or brain trauma, the criteria necessary for insurance coverage. 

Finding Ways to Cope

Progress was slow. I did see improvement, but not to my satisfaction. My fluency was up and down like a roller coaster. My mind was inundated with fear, dread, and terror when my speech went awry. I hyperventilated and my heart pounded fiercely when answering the phone or speaking in public places, on and off my job. 

My speech raised eyebrows. It drew a plethora of reactions. I have been subjected to questions like, “Are you drunk or on drugs?” “Are you having a seizure?” “Why are you laughing,” or “what’s so funny?”  One person mimicked me and told me I was sexy over the microphone on my job.

My intelligence was questioned and I received hostile looks. Impatience and intolerance by others showed up when my words were slow coming out of my mouth.

One doctor hung up on me, then called me back and asked if I had a speech impediment. When I told him yes, he apologized.

It was a dizzying journey. I felt like a dog unsuccessfully chasing its tail. The more I tried to control my speech the more I lost control of it. At times, I thought I was losing my mind.
Somehow I managed, never missing a day at work.  I made no excuses and kept pushing through my emotions and spasms. I felt embarrassed and lamented my faltering speech. I lost my spunk and spontaneity.

One time another pharmacist, whom I called for a copy of a prescription, asked me, “Are you high or drunk?”

My words sputtered before I got a head of steam to respond. “I have a speech impediment. I am a stutterer.” 

“Give me your phone number and let me call you back!” he demanded.

I struggled giving the number. My vocals did not cooperate. When he called back, my technician, who had returned from break, answered the phone and reiterated that I was the pharmacist and a stutterer.

His pharmacy was down the street from where I worked. I decided I wanted to let him see my eyes and realize I was not under the influence. It was a Saturday evening. I knew that his pharmacy closed at 6 p.m., an hour later than mine.  

At 5 p.m., after closing the pharmacy, I paid him a visit. I waited until he finished with his customers then approached the counter gingerly. No one was present but him and me. 

“May I speak with you for a moment,” I said.  “I am the pharmacist you spoke with earlier and you thought I was under the influence. Look me in my eyes. I want you to see I am not high. I have a speech impediment. I don’t do drugs and I am not drunk.”

I looked deep into his eyes and I did not flinch or stutter. “I don’t need any trouble or you reporting false information to the state board,” I told him. I pinched myself and asked him to pinch me. He looked stung and refrained. 

“The reason I want you to pinch me is because I am as human as you are.” His eyes widened. “It is a known fact one of the most difficult tasks for a stutterer is to speak on the telephone. When I make good eye contact, I am more fluent.”  

He stood at attention and listened, looking mystified and in disbelief.

“I am so sorry.  I misunderstood,” he apologized.

“Thank you for your time,” I replied and I walked away like a proud peacock. I celebrated singing with the radio blasting, as I drove home. It was a victory to me. I felt empowered.

While my challenges were many, I did not struggle alone. I must give a shout out to my co-workers in Downey. They were patient, protective, and professional. They came to my rescue answering the phone, sometimes explaining my speech. They showed me empathy.  I withstood frowns, doubters, questions, and haters. 

I had been struggling with this disability for almost 40 years when I first met Ginger and acted on her suggestion that I consult with an ENT specialist. I struck gold with this doctor. He listened, observed, and answered my questions. He validated my feedback and discussion of my experiences. His willingness to articulate each step of the evaluation process was reassuring

A flexible fiberoptic scope placed through my nose and down the back of my throat allowed the doctor to view my voice box while I was speaking. The spasms appeared on a monitor. 

The doctor confirmed that I suffered from a condition known as abductor spasmodic dysphonia. I was relieved to know it was not psychogenic, but a neurological disorder affecting the voice muscles in the larynx causing the widening of the vocal cords and preventing them from vibrating properly to produce sound, as air escapes from the lungs during speech.  Stress, he said, may exacerbate the spasms.

The Trial

The specialist questioned if I had a trauma or remembered a triggering event. My mind flashed back to Destrehan, Louisiana in 1975 when I was attending Xavier University in New Orleans. 

Five buses of students, including me, rode to the courthouse where Gary Tyler, a 16-year-old high school junior, was on trial for murdering Timothy Weber, a 13-year-old white boy, during an intense protest in 1974 by whites opposed to school integration.

Destrehan was known to be KKK territory, and Gary and his fellow black students were taunted with racial slurs, epithets, and hostility. On the day Timothy Weber was shot, Gary was on the bus, leaving school, when a shot rang out in the white crowd. Timothy Weber died.  

The physical evidence against Gary was very questionable – the bus driver said he thought the shot came from outside, the police searched the bus for over an hour before saying they found a gun, and later it was determined that the gun had been stolen from the police evidence room. Gary was sentenced to death by an all-white jury.

As a student at Xavier University, I had joined the Free Gary Tyler Committee. As our buses slowly rolled into Destrehan to support Gary during his trial, hard hat construction workers were lying on top of buildings with loaded guns pointed at our buses.

 A civil rights march in support of Gary Tyler in 1976. Courtesy FreeGaryTyler.com

A civil rights march in support of Gary Tyler in 1976. Courtesy FreeGaryTyler.com

The scene was daunting. I was scared out of my wits. Assigned to go into the courtroom to take notes and report to the overflow of students waiting outside, fear paralyzed me. I could not get a whisper out.  

From the day of the trial, my speech was broken. It got progressively worse, before getting better. Stress was a factor.  

My family was baffled and so was I. It was a sensitive issue. Mother looked bewildered when I spoke. I know her heart was bleeding for me. She was very patient, never critical.  

My sister Jo encouraged me to slow down when I spoke. “It’s okay, Baby Girl, you can do it.” Other family members reacted differently.

Despite all of this, I finished school, passed my state boards, and became licensed in two states. I pounded the pavement for a job and embarked on a career as a medical professional. 

Perseverance

My speech difficulties humbled me. I discovered my resolve. I walked through trials and tribulations, somehow forged ahead. I stumbled and found a way to get back up. It opened my heart to others with differences and disabilities. 

It taught me broken crayons still color. I faced the bitter and the sweet, and the bitter grew my gratitude for the sweet things in my life. 

The intolerance others mirrored was a valuable lesson. Not knowing the back-story of what others are going through leaves lots of room for misperception. I can’t fault others for misunderstanding. 

I saw improvements when I looked people in their eyes. I learned to be present, to be a better listener. I confronted my fears and trusted God. Speaking my truth and being honest made me feel good about myself. 

Journaling became a dear friend. I poured out my emotions on paper. Learning self-acceptance was a struggle.  I prayed and had no choice but to be patient with others and myself.

I became mindful of how important generosity, graciousness, and gratitude are. The three G’s have transformative power.  Many were kind and patient with me stumbling.

Ginger was a blessing, a gift, an earth angel. Fate destined us to meet. She was the catalyst to me getting a definitive diagnosis over 40 years later.  Three doctors and a language speech pathologist evaluated and diagnosed my condition in 2016.  How sweet it is to know!

What a weight lifted off my shoulders.  I am not crazy after all.  I owe Ginger a debt of gratitude. Wherever you are, Ginger, I thank you.

Final Note: Gary Tyler was sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, known as the worst and bloodiest prison in the country.  His case was appealed by many supporters, and In April 2016 he was finally released after 41 years in prison.  He now lives in California and is a graphic artist.  I always believed in his innocence.  “Free at last.  Thank God Almighty, free at last!” 

 Gary Tyler in 2017. Courtesy FreeGaryTyler.com

Gary Tyler in 2017. Courtesy FreeGaryTyler.com

Shared Stories: What's wrong with your leg?

Katie Troy’s exuberance defies the reality of her progressive disease. She travels everywhere in her “convertible” (motorized wheelchair) and never loses an opportunity to promote the advantages of a healthy diet. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Katie Troy
 

I worked as a food server at South Street Deli for eight or nine years.  It was a very fun job.  I would laugh and tell jokes to the customers and they would tell me some as well.

One day I told my boss, “This job is scary.  I’m having too much fun.”

About a year and a half after 9/11, on March 26, 2003, I waited on four lovely ladies.  I had a ball with them.  I even got to tell them my Penny joke that a customer had shared with me.  
A customer asked me, “What’s wrong with your leg?” I said, “I don’t know.  It just doesn’t want to work.”

On April 1, 2003, I came into work and my boss said, “You have a letter from the four ladies you waited on last week.”

I said, “You’re joking, right?”  It was April Fool’s Day.  

He said, “No, you have a letter.” He went back to his office and brought it to me.  It was a lovely letter.  I even laminated it.  That was on Monday.

On Friday, when I walked into the restaurant, the manager from Katella Deli was standing there. (The two delis were owned by the same firm.)  As she handed me my check, she said, “Give me your apron and tie. We are closing.”

That was a trip.  I hadn’t gone to the doctor about my leg because I didn’t want to miss work. Now I could go to the doctor.

I knew exactly what was wrong when I asked my brother David, who has MS (multiple sclerosis), if he could run. He said no, so I knew I had MS as well. David’s MS mostly affected his right arm. He’s right-handed. My MS mostly affected my left leg.

I was upset that my neurologist made me get a spinal tap. I know now that it was all about the money and the injections he put me on, and the depression pills I took because of the poison shots.

I had to work at getting on disability. They denied me several times before I finally started receiving it.  My arms were (and are still) very muscular and I looked healthy.  Everyone was telling me to cover my “guns” (arm muscles) because the disability people didn’t believe I was ill.

Then I went to get Access (a ride service) about six years ago. I went in a wheelchair and my request was still denied three times before it was approved.

It’s been a crazy ride over the past 15 years. I wish I could walk, but I cruise in my motorized wheelchair instead. I go everywhere in it (except when I travel to Pennsylvania to visit my family) and I am on my third one in 10 years.

Since I developed MS, I stopped eating animals and sugar and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  MS landed me here, or should I say God dropped me off.  Otherwise, I would never have met my Memoirs family or my “Mom” and neighbor Yolanda. 

I guess we all need to grow old gracefully.

Shared Stories: Conversations with winos

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Vince Madrid finds the reality in a wino’s dictum, “Everyone has a palace.”  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Vince Madrid
Time spent with winos at the streetcar depot across the tracks from mom’s house was surprisingly rich. Not the sort of moments that are generally taken to be rich, no great occasions, just plain old fashion good times. 

Decked out with meticulously ironed khaki pants and Sir Guy shirts with stylish French-toe dress shoes spit-shined like a mirror, dressed to impress, my friends and I craved acceptance, and for the most part we got it.

Our parents, bless their hearts, worked seven days a week cooking and cleaning to make ends meet. No time for philosophy. 

Thankfully, for the price of a cheap bottle of booze, neighborhood wine drinkers who loitered at the train depot entertained us with fascinating conversation. 

The most vocal of the group was cara de huevo. He acquired the name after participating in so many street fights that his face looked like scrambled eggs. For a generous donation cara de huevo would ceremoniously remove his glass eye from its socket and display it on the palm of his hand like a sports trophy.

Even though his speech was slurred, cara de huevo spoke with the confidence of a university professor. “The important thing,” he said, “is to find your palace.”

“What palace?” we asked. He smiled with the few teeth he had left, leaned toward us as if he was about to reveal the greatest secret. 

“This is important, Boy. Don’t you know that each of us has a palace somewhere?” He took a deep breath, squeezed his nose with his index finger and blew out a wad of snot while we stepped back respectfully, giving him space to aim for the rail tracks.    

“Yes, don’t look at me with that face like you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Everybody’s born with a palace assigned to them so they can live there and do whatever they want, or desire or aspire to do.” 

“Every, everybody?” I asked?  Cara de huevo took a swig, wiped his chapped lips with the back of his hand and widened his smile as if he was having a great time.

 ”All’s quiet on the Western front,” he said in a tone that implied the conversation was over.

“Where’s my mom’s palace and my pop’s?” I insisted.

“They got palaces, but that doesn’t mean they’ve found them. You have to search for your palace, search good and hard. Maybe lots of people never find theirs.”

“Have you found yours?”

“Don’t ask so many questions boy.”

“Where will I find mine?”

”Listen to you, all you ever do is ask–don’t ask so much. Shit, whoever said it takes so many questions to find something? Look for it and you’ll find it.”

After a lifetime of searching, I found my palace filled with miracles and sweet memories at Willowbrook Avenue, on the north side of Compton. Dad lived there, my brothers and sisters lived there, Great-grandma Cuca lived there, Grandma Carmen and Mama Sarita lived there.
Together they left an oasis of peace, knee-deep with love so thick you could slice it with a knife, divvy it with neighbors and still have left-overs. 

My palace had been there all along in a barrio with nopales and graffiti and Spanish-language music blaring from powerful speakers in competition with the metro passenger train which broke the sound barrier every hour, on the hour, in front of the house where I grew up.

Shared Stories: My First Car

Steven Boyd seems to have a natural mechanical aptitude. Even in the era of do-it-yourself car repair, his story still reflects exceptional ability. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
 

By Steven Boyd

In 1968 I graduated from High School and still didn’t have my own car. I had been working at a local pizzeria for $1.75 an hour and by late summer had saved a little over $400. Up to that time I had four modes of transportation:

1.)  Walking – this was reserved for shorter distances and used only when the other three were not available.

2.)  Riding my bike – this was my main mode of transportation at the time but had the drawback of not always being available because of technical difficulties.

3.)  Getting rides from friends – this was a great way to get around in style but had the drawback of only being available when friends were available.

4.)  Borrowing my mom’s car – This was a special occasion mode of transportation, reserved only for dates, which were few and far between in those days.

One day, in the fall of that year, I was walking down Valley View Blvd.  I was walking because the bike had a flat, my friends were all preoccupied and my mom had her car at work. As I passed by a local manure business, I noticed a green car with a “for sale” sign on the front window. As I got closer, I could read that they were asking $350 for it. 

When my dad got home that evening he agreed to go and check out the car to verify it was running and worth $350. After seeing and testing the car, he said yes. I paid the $350 cash and drove my very own car home. 

It was a 1963 Mercury Comet two-door. It had an in-line, 6 cylinder and 3-on-the- column. It had drum brakes all around. It had a working AM/FM radio, but the first thing I bought for it was an 8-track tape player. 

It had bench seats and accommodated six easily because it didn’t have seatbelts. This also made it easy for my date to sit anywhere on the front seat she wanted. 

One of the first young ladies I took out on a date in my new car was Maria, a close friend from high school. On our first date, she sat right next to me. The second date she sat in the middle of her portion of the front seat.  On our third date, she hugged the armrest of the passenger door. There was no fourth date.

The previous driver of my Comet was the company’s salesman who just happened to be a chain smoker. Because of the saturation of smoke on the headliner, the threads holding the sections together disintegrated and the headliner above the front seat hung down to just touch my head. 

I tried to clean it. I tried to sew it. I tried to tape it. In the end, I removed the entire headliner and spray painted the exposed metal.  It had a great sound when it rained.

One day, Bonnie and I were coming home on Interstate 10 after a college group retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. I had a strong headwind to drive into but I wanted to show that my Comet could keep up with the other cars so I kept pushing it. 

Eventually, it blew the head casket, over-heated, and blew up one of the pistons.  A piece of the piston got wedged in the oil pan and froze the engine.  My dad had to come and tow us home. 

I was too innocent to know just what I was getting myself into but I decided to do all the repairs myself. Plus, I couldn’t afford to have someone else do it. It took me a while but I eventually got it back together and it ran. 

I learned a lot about an internal combustion engine by taking it apart and putting it back together. I’ve even done it a couple of times again on other engines. Once, a friend said I could have his car that had a blown engine if I could get it running again. I didn’t have a car at the time and so it worked out great. 

Another time, a mutual friend of Bonnie and mine had a crack in her block and I replaced it. I saved her a couple of thousand dollars and had fun doing it.

In the end, the Comet and I parted ways when I was in boot camp and my parents got tired of it being in their driveway. They sold it to the junkyard for $20 which they applied to my phone bill.

Oh well, it was just a car.

Shared Stories: Oprah and Morehouse College

Watching Oprah on the Golden Globe awards reminded Kay Halsey of a visit to Morehouse College with her father when she was a little girl.  It made her think of service to others and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Kay Halsey

Ninety-four years ago during the 1920’s my father took me to Morehouse College to a Christmas concert.  I was mesmerized by the magnificent men’s voices singing, “Oh come, oh come, Emanuel,” as they marched in, dressed in black robes.

Atlanta, Georgia, was a segregated city in those days, and the college was for Negro men.  It was a time of the greatest depression in America’s history.  The birth of Jesus was celebrated in all the Christian churches at that time with carols known to all.

I was surprised when I watched the 2018 Golden Globe awards that Oprah Winfrey had financed the education of 415 men at that college for $320,000.  Many of these men went on to have professional jobs.  

Oprah had, during her lifetime, financed 64,688 scholarships to other colleges also.  Oprah believed in Emanuel who taught men to love one another.

I am 97 years old now and have spent a lifetime trying to live a life of service to others, as Emanuel taught us to love one another.  I have touched hundreds of people, teaching and relating to their needs.  I notice however that Christmas and Thanksgiving today are influenced by buying, decorating and eating.  Prizes are given for the best decorations, what we see.  

Oprah was not born when Morehouse College was established.  Nor was Martin Luther King, Jr. yet born.  It was what they did that changed the lives of so many people.  

Love one another.  The things we dream about, Love, Joy, and Peace, are possible if we care about others.

Shared Stories: Square dancing at Seattle's World Fair

Belle Fluhart has a special memory from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair when her southern California square dance club traveled north and danced on an aircraft carrier.  (A “squaw” dress, also known as a “fiesta” dress, originated in Tuscon in the 1950s and was popular among square dancers.) Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns


By Belle Fluhart

My husband George and I were avid square dancers.  We had danced with three other couples for years. The men all worked for U.S. Motors.  We had joined a club for the first time, The Reel Heels.

When we learned that the World’s Fair was to be in Seattle, George’s home town, we began planning to go up for the fair.  We planned to take George’s mother.

Our square dance friends wanted to go with us. We all decided we would travel together with trailers.  The fourth couple had three children. Ray asked if they could bring the children.
I said, “This is the opportunity of a lifetime. You wouldn’t want to leave them home!”  Another couple had two children also and were bringing them.

Ray had been looking for a trailer to rent that would sleep the five of them, and found one.  It was privately owned and the family would have the trailer, and the club cab truck to pull it with, ready to go when we were ready.

George and I owned a beautiful six-acre property in Alderwood Manor (about 16 miles north of Seattle).  It had rolling hills, huge evergreen trees, and a salmon creek.  We had always camped on our property each time we drove up.

I told the neighbors in Alderwood that we were coming up for the World’s Fair.  There would be four cars and trailers on our property.  I asked them to check with the volunteer fire department to ask if we could have an open fire outside.

The answer came back saying that the volunteer fire department was so excited about our coming up that they were overseeing the creation of our wagon train camping area.  And, so that the neighbors would not have a big water bill, they had filled a tank with water, with a hose and faucet, for us.  They brought a trash can and had also built a fire circle of rocks, so all was ready for us.

On an earlier trip, I had seen a big sign on a billboard that said, “Come square dance with us at the Old Red Barn.”

I wrote saying that we were four couples who were coming up for the World’s Fair, and would be camping out on our property on Poplar Way.  We would like to visit them and square dance at the Old Red Barn.

The answer came by return mail. They were excited that we were coming and asked the dates that we would be there. Our trip was for two weeks and I said we’d be there the last weekend.  This would be after we had done the planned activities at the fair. They replied that the square dance would be Saturday night, and sent a map showing how to get to the Old Red Barn from Poplar Way.

I had done all of the planning for the trip and told our girls that “We don’t want to out-dress these ladies and suggest that we each take a squaw dress.  Don’t forget your petticoats and dancing slippers!”  The men everywhere dress about the same – western pants, boots, and western shirts and ties.

We arrived Saturday evening at the Red Barn and our four couples danced the first dance. Then the caller said, “Now let’s break up this California square.  Let’s get acquainted with these folks.”

A man came all the way across the room and grabbed my hand.  After that first dance, he just kept hold of my hand.

After the next dance, he said, “Are you coming tomorrow?”

I said, “What’s tomorrow?”

He said, “There’s a flat top (aircraft carrier) anchored in the bay and there will be square dancing on deck from 9:00 am all day and into the night, a long as there are square dancers.”

I said, “I’ll go ask the rest of my group.”

Sunday morning at 9:00 am the eight of us walked aboard the flat top and were greeted by the Red Barn dancers.  The man I had danced with the night before came over and asked if we knew a certain, very complicated, very beautiful square dance.  I answered, “Yes.”

As part of this dance, each of the men grabs onto the next man’s wrist on each side, and the girls hold onto the next girl’s wrist on each side.  At the call, the four men stretch their arms out as far as possible, dance around in a circle with the girls on their arms.  They swing the girls until the girls’ bodies are flying out with their feet way off the floor and their skirts flying out in the air.

This man said, “I’m a guest caller.  Each caller is allowed to call one dance.  But I asked if I could call one dance for the Red Barn group and one for the Southern California group.  And, I have permission to do so.”

He made the announcement and said that he was calling this dance for the Southern California square, “but anyone who knows this dance, feel free to join in.”

Two other squares joined us, but the first time we girls took to the air, the other two squares backed out.  Everyone applauded.

Someone asked if it would it be the same if we were not with our partners.  I told the men across from each other to trade places so that all four couples would be different.  Then we did the dance again to a thunderous applause.  

As soon as we were finished, the caller said, “You Red Barn dancers get over there.  Don’t let our guests get away.”

A wall of people came toward us and we square danced all day and afternoon until it was time to go back to camp and have dinner with our families.

We had a wonderful time, we had square danced to our heart’s content, and now we were going home.